At some point during their terms, all New Jersey governors run afoul of senatorial courtesy -- the legislative custom which allows a State Senator to delay or block altogether consideration of a gubernatorial nominee who resides in the Senator’s home county.
It’s unusual, however, for such a dispute to erupt publicly and be accompanied by the rancor and political conflict as that involving Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Ron Rice, a Newark Democrat, over the nomination of Christopher Cerf to be Commissioner of Education.
And, it’s even rarer for a confrontation to hold significant potential for collateral damage.
Rice exercised courtesy to block Cerf’s confirmation and has refused to budge, forcing Cerf to serve as Acting Commissioner although with all the duties, responsibilities and authority of the office.
An angry and exasperated Christie responded by withholding submitting nominees to fill a half dozen judicial vacancies in Superior Court in Essex County until Rice relents.
The shortage of judges led to a suspension of civil trials, delaying outcomes and creating additional expenses for litigants.
Rice has embraced a “where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire” approach to Cerf’s nomination, intimating that the Commissioner’s previous affiliations with for profit firms involved in public education will influence his decisions to the detriment of education in general. The Senator has insisted that before he’ll withdraw his objections, Cerf must appear before the Education Committee and respond to questions about his past business activities.
Cerf has said he severed all ties with the firms before accepting Christie’s offer and that his energies would be devoted exclusively to building and maintaining a quality education for the state’s school children.
The normal course of action for resolving senatorial courtesy objections is quiet and out of public view negotiations. Occasionally, county political leaders become involved in the discussions, helping to reach an accommodation satisfactory to both sides.
The Christie-Rice conflict, though, is different. The issue obviously isn’t very quiet and negotiations appear pointless. Moreover, the Senator isn’t at much risk of political retribution -- he’s outside the sphere of influence of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and Newark leader Steve Adubato Sr., two Democrats close to the Governor and who -- under other circumstances -- could bring considerable pressure to bear on Rice.
Christie seems willing to absorb the criticism that his refusal to submit judicial nominees has had a crippling effect on the court system and unnecessarily denies access to people who require judicial intervention.
Like his predecessors, Christie is frustrated by a custom that allows one person to thwart not only the prerogative of the Executive Branch to select administrators and managers to carry out its agenda, but doesn’t require any reason for doing so or impose any time limit on its use.